Profiting by the news
This week on August 28th, something happened that could yet change the way we think and determine what we know and how we know it. It received news coverage, but I suspect not enough. So what was this event? It was the delivery of this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. It was given by James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and chairman of News Corporation of Europe and Asia. And why was this lecture so important? Well, let me say a little about it, and leave it to you to judge.
First of all, while the lecture has, as I noted, received some media attention, the summaries of it in the press do not altogether do it justice. So I recommend that you actually read the whole thing, and you can find it here. There are a couple of recurring themes in it, which can be summarised thus: (i) media regulation is bad (I was going to say, ‘mostly bad’, or even just ‘often bad’, but I have re-read the lecture and cannot see anything in it to suggest that he thinks it is ever good); and (ii) always let the media develop through customer choice, which in turn should never be influenced, guided or constrained. In explaining these principles Murdoch argues that his company’s free market approach is intellectually to be seen as an application of Darwin’s evolution theory, while those who favour or apply regulation are the media equivalents of the followers of creationism.
But it is clear that Murdoch was delivering a story with a punch line, so we may as well come straight to that, the very last sentence in the lecture:
‘The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.’
In many ways you have to admire the Murdoch empire, which has prospered despite early disasters and near-bankruptcies. It has delivered some very smart media strategies and, I have no doubt, a number of popular media products. It has also gained a position in global media markets in English that give it an awesome power. But it seems to see one huge threat to the onward march of its corporate success, and that is the BBC. The BBC, Murdoch argues, is a broadcaster owned by the state and regulated by it, and subject to all sorts of rules and restrictions he clearly regards as barmy (including, as he points out, the requirement to give equal air time to opposing political or other viewpoints). But most of all his complaint is that the BBC has too much money, and is able to use its resources to expand its services and crowd out the competition. It is not driven by what customers want, he suggests, but by what regulators and ministers and various do-gooders want them to want. He sees this as particularly threatening as the previously separate media of broadcast and print start to merge, and in the light of the growth of the internet as a news medium. This is how he sees the BBC’s operations in this new world:
‘Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy. Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.
We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.’
So what are we to make of all this? Is state-owned public broadcasting an assault on freedom of expression and independent news gathering, as Murdoch asserts? Is the idea that an organisation like the BBC represents impartiality just an illusion? Would an unregulated broadcast market still be selling independent journalism and programming? Murdoch’s answer to the latter, by the way, is to point to the growing arts coverage of Sky TV as proof that for-profit broadcasting does not slide into the gutter.
So, is the era of public service broadcasting over, or should it be? What does or would this mean for RTE? And what does the punter really want?Explore posts in the same categories: culture, society comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.